Happy Mexican Bicentennial of Independence

200 years ago today, September 16, 1810, Dolores Hildago began the revolution that led to Mexican Independence.

Jose Clemente Orozco's Dolores Hidalgo
Jose Clemente Orozco's Dolores Hidalgo

Ramon Eduardo Ruiz, Historian of Mexico Has Died

The great historian of Mexico, Ramon Eduardo Ruiz, has died. It has been some time since I have read his work, especially The Great Rebellion: Mexico 1905-1924 (Revolutions in the Modern World) and Triumphs and Tragedy: A History of the Mexican People. The former is an excellent account of the revolution with all its twists, characters and ultimately what it did and did not overthrow. It was a great grounding for reading authors like Carlos Fuentes, Mariano Azuela, and Martin Guzman.

The LA Times has the full obit.

In 1998, the 77-year-old American son of Mexican immigrants joined historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., biographer Stephen E. Ambrose, novelist E.L. Doctorow and five other distinguished Americans who were awarded the National Humanities Medal at a White House ceremony.

In the classroom and through his books, Ruiz told the San Diego Union-Tribune before traveling to Washington, he sought to “convey the complexity and excitement of Mexican history. I especially try to convey the great cultural richness of Mexican life and of Mexican literature.”

Off the Wall – Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War – A Review

Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War
Zeina Maasri
I. B. Tauris, 168 pg

Every war has its own aesthetic. As bad as it sounds to equate art and style which often had a connotation of beauty and goodness to war, the need to solidify group membership, demonize the other, and provide a vision of the future with its implicit sense of triumph, lend themselves to symbolic interpretation through art. The poster in the modern industrial world is a cheep, quick and disposable medium that has been one of the most common ways to mix art and war. Even if a faction could not afford radio or TV, the poster was available, and that ease of production has left many enduring images that shape the impressions of a war. For Americans, the Uncle Sam I Want You Poster from World War I or Rosie the Riveter from World War II, are as important to the iconography of those wars as a trench scene or raising the flag on Iwo Jima.

It is with these ideas in mind that Zeina Maasri approaches the 150 posters that make up the richly printed collection from the Lebanese Civil War. Maasari finds in the posters reflections of an aesthetic and a politics that were unique to Lebanon. While she notes that the posters may seem at first similar to the propaganda posters of the wars of the 20th century whose goals were to inspire and demonize, the posters in Lebanon, due to the sectional nature of the conflict, were more focused on establishing control and marking territory. Since the lines between combatants were not always marked out clearly, the posters became a means of showing areas of control and describing who was in power. At the same time, the posters performed their traditional role of forging group cohesion. Moreover, Maasari points out that politics in Lebanon for at least the last half of the 20th century was marked by factional dynasties that provided leadership for each group, and whose leaders passed leadership from father to son; thus, the posters often served the dual role of emphasizing the role of the leader as the head of the faction and reminding the view of the faction’s strength. Finally, religion is an important element in many of the posters, especially as the Shiites moved away from the traditionally left leaning parties to the religious.

From these elements which Maasri outlines in a series of insightful chapters that mix the history with posters, the reader can understand not only what the posters mean but their context. Providing context is not a simple task when describing the Lebanese Civil war. The shifting allegiances, numerous parties, and different leaders make it difficult to follow the evolution of the war and the posters. However, Maasri provides a brief introduction to each faction (although she might have noted their general tendencies, such as left, right), a chronology of the war, and an in depth discussion of the posters. Her discussion is broken up into four themes, leadership, commemoration, martyrdom, and belonging, each of which is given its Lebanese context. The chapter on leadership is probably the most helpful, since it is difficult to know who all the iconic leaders are. It also helps to understand how the parties were led by dynasties. The chapter on martyrdom probably is of most interest outside of the civil war. While Maasri sticks only to the war, the concept of martyrdom is comes up in the news, and her explanation of how the various parties developed the posters from almost simple funeral announcements for soldiers killed in battle to symbolic representations of the dead, complete with drawings of the act.

Most of the posters are available on-line at the American University of Beirut, but unless you can read Arabic or the occasional French, it will be hard to understand what is going on in the posters. If you are even a bit interested in the subject the book is worth a read. The only draw back of this otherwise well written book is the first chapter which is an example of everything that is wrong with modern academic writing. I read it, but it was painful and, worse, not really needed. Maasri’s analysis of the posters explains her thesis quite well and is much more palatable. You would do well to read the the chapters after the theory section and pay special attention to her detailed analysis of most of the posters. You will come away with a detailed understanding of the symbols of the factions in the civil war, so of which, like those of Hezbollah, still are effective.

Fabulation and Metahistory: W.G. Sebald and Recent German Holocaust Fiction

The UW is putting on a lecture about W.G. Sebald and contemporary German Holocaust literature. Having recently read Will Self’s (via Conversational Reading) article on the same subject, the lecture sounds interesting. Anyone interested in Sebald might consider checking it out.

Thursday • February 4 • 7pm
Katz Lectures in the Humanities presents: Richard Gray
“Fabulation and Metahistory: W.G. Sebald and Recent German Holocaust Fiction”
UW Kane Hall, Room 220, Seattle
Through an examination of W.G. Sebald, Professor Gray’s Katz lecture engages the conflicts between poetic technique and historical reliability that haunt contemporary German Holocaust literature. Richard Gray is Byron W. and Alice L. Lockwood Professor of the Humanities in the Department of Germanics at the University of Washington. He is and author and is editor of the Literary Conjugations series for the University of Washington Press.

Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War – A Review

Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War
Dora L. Costa & Matthew E. Kahn

I didn’t like the title to begin with. A book about war, especially one by social scientists, should not be called Heroes and Cowards. One, because hero is over used, and cowardice, like heroism, is so fluid it is hard to really say what is heroic at times. Yet the second bit of the title suggests the book will delve deep into what it means to be a soldier, or more accurately, what a soldier’s experience is, since what it means to be anything doesn’t explain much it just an analysis placed on experience. Had the authors stuck to the second part of the title the book might have been a more interesting read. Unfortunately, it is a sociological study that tries to be prescriptive when the best that can be hoped for is the descriptive.

What the authors of Heroes and Cowards attempt to do is explain why some soldiers deserted and why others did not. Unlike historical works that use diaries, letters, and other primary sources as a tool to determine why their subjects behaved in a certain way, they used a data set culled from government enlistment, pension, and other records that represented over 30 different regiments who fought for the Northern side. While the data set is impressive and is useful for explaining trends among soldiers such as enlistment rates, distance from where they lived to the enlistment location, and ethnic make up, the research really doesn’t seem to be particularly useful. For example, in one analysis they noted that desertion rates among soldiers who were all from the same area and, therefore, new each other, versus those who were drawn from a larger group and did not know each other, were 8% for the former and 10% for the latter, suggesting group cohesion means less desertion. At another point in the book doing a similar comparison the numbers seem to flip. In either case, the I don’t know if percentages are really that different. Wider variation in numbers would have made these numbers more telling and meaningful.

The authors are at their best when they take a look at the literary evidence available in journals, letters, etc and use it to illustrate what they think the data show. The literary evidence, though, has the advantage of saying why soldiers deserted or not. The statistical can only say that they deserted and perhaps it was for this reason. While knowing desertion rates and other statistical data is important as part of a whole picture, it turns the war into a numeric puzzle that is incomplete at best. A descriptive history of war is, in an industrial era, natural, but it also takes away context and turns motivation into a mathematical equation: recruitment is high here + tight-nit community = strong cohesion.

Finally, the authors at times seem to over apply the term desertion. Writing about one battle they note that when one unit began to running from the front and cross paths with another unit, the second unit began to run also. The authors called it desertion, but that is too simplistic a read of how battles tend to function. Fortunately, their statistical analysis wasn’t that detailed so they could analyze a moment like that.

Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War has some relevant information even if it doesn’t seem statistically interesting, but to make it through the book it is best to skip over some of their analysis or you may become mired in an analysis that isn’t particularly astounding.

World War II: Now In HD Color – A Review

I wasn’t sure if the History Channel’s World War II in HD was going to be more over the top disaster/war channel material, the kind of thing that celebrates the extreme nature of the subject, rather than a respectful presentation. But two episodes in, the show seems to be in the latter camp. It is an American history, not only in focus, but in vocabulary: the narrator uses we/our often when describing American forces; and the term greatest generation has shown up once. Yet it isn’t jingoistic, just proud; Steven Ambrose had nothing to do with this, fortunately. Seeing combat in color makes the war seem more recent, as if it was an extension of the Vietnam fotage. Distance gives one a chance to apprase the past; closeness blurs the opportunity, and the remaking of the war in color has the ability to make the war seem rosy again, America’s greates monent—in other words, the return of the Greatest Generation dreams. Yet the show also has some of the most graphic images of that or any war and the film makers haven’t refrained from showing the dead nor the wounded, esspecially those undergoing medical treatment. At times it can be disturbing, but those are the rewards of war and considering the sanitization of the last 3 wars, it is a needed reminder.

I don’t know how many times the war needs to be watched, but if you are going to watch the war it is a quality production wrapped in some HD hype.